There are two types of captioning: open and closed. Stagetext provides open captioning. This is an example of ‘inclusive design’ because everyone can see the captions, whether they have a hearing loss or not.
The text of the play or musical is displayed on a screen, either on, below or beside the stage, or flying low above it. Audiences with no recognised hearing loss often find the captions helpful, especially when the acoustics are poor or where English is not their first language; when students want to access the text during a performance; when the performance involves dialect or strong accents; when the words are being sung, or when actors are speaking and singing offstage.
Open captioning raises people awareness of deafness and hearing loss, makes the production more accessible to everyone, and fosters inclusiveness. It’s a relatively simple and cost-effective way to provide access to live performance for the maximum number of people. With open captioning, audience members who are deaf, deafened or hard of hearing are not ‘labelled’ as such by having to collect special equipment or sit in specially equipped seats; they can sit with their family and friends and enjoy the performance together.
Closed captioning can only be seen by people with the appropriate equipment. The captions are displayed to individual audience members using one of a number of closed caption devices. These include hand-held screens which the audience member holds throughout the performance, small screens installed on the back of the seat in front, and even special glasses.
A perceived advantage of closed captioning systems is that the captions are invisible to other audience members and do not interfere with the stage aesthetics. The disadvantages are that deaf audience members have to collect a hand-held device or sit in a designated area of the auditorium in order to see the seat-back screens and may not be able to sit with their hearing friends and family. Installing screens at every seat could be prohibitively expensive for small theatres.
Stagetext has carried out some research among deaf, deafened and hard of hearing people on this subject. In terms of viewing the performance, hand-held and seat-back screens present the challenge of constantly having to adjust the focus of the eye from the screen to the stage and so it was not felt appropriate for accessing theatre productions. However, it is possible that closed captioning could be used effectively in other areas of the arts.